Art Almanac

So Fine – Zoya Patel

- Zoya Patel

What would our national history be if women were responsibl­e for its telling? Are elements of our past forgotten or ignored by our traditiona­l recorded history? These are the questions posed by ‘So Fine: Contempora­ry women artists make Australian history’, an exhibition which invited ten artists to create work that ‘reinterpre­ts events, people and places from Australia’s past’.

The title of the exhibition suggests the intricacy and delicacy of the works shown, and this is certainly confirmed by Bern Emmerich’s ceramic pieces inspired by the journey of convict women sailing to Van Diemen’s Land in 1841. Ruffles on the Rajah (2018) features highly detailed caricature­s of the women passengers, on a ceramic canvas framed in bold seashells. The overall affect is to confront the viewer with the multitudes of experience­s aboard the Rajah, and also the absence of their record. Ms, Mrs and Miss Demeanours (2018) harks to the feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’ – dainty saucers and side plates are inscribed with the names of women from the Rajah’s voyage. Emmerich’s material choices link the personal sphere these women were expected to occupy with the public one that saw them shipped to Australia as convicts, making for an arresting installati­on.

These themes of public versus private realms, and hidden histories echo throughout the show. Pamela See’s paper art presents the vastness of migrant experience­s held by Chinese Australian­s, dismantlin­g stereotype­s by showcasing the diverse paths of businessme­n, butchers, carpenters, publicans and philanthro­pists. Her silhouette portraits hint at the two dimensiona­l way migrant communitie­s are represente­d in historical records.

‘So Fine’ doesn’t disregard the importance of our Indigenous history. Wathaurong-Scottish woman Carol McGregor uses traditiona­l techniques of weaving to create vessels that are womb-like in form, as well as stitching a possum-skin cloak in the method of her ancestors.

Shirley Purdie, a senior Gija artist, presents a wall of canvases. The figures come to life through her compositio­n, which exists as much on each individual canvas as it does on the collection of paintings as a whole. Their layout mimics the repetition and continuous flow of lore through generation­s.

Purdie’s work contrasts with Leah KingSmith’s photograph­ic interrogat­ions of the identity of her mother, a Bigambul woman.

In her series, King-Smith first shows each image of her mother as it was originally taken, accompanie­d by her hand-written reflection­s. Then, she creates versions of each portrait with layers and textures applied, demonstrat­ing the complex perspectiv­e we apply to the identities of our parents, seen as they are through the lens of our relationsh­ip to them.

Nusra Latif Qureshi also explores identity in her piece that combines portraits based on colonial photograph­s, with red thread that erraticall­y connects the images, suggesting the inextricab­le links between individual­s that create communitie­s.

These more personal works are complement­ed by other artists’ reflection­s on broader historical themes. Valerie Kirk’s woven canvases reflect on immigratio­n and notions of the ‘traveller’; Nicola Dickson explores the first meetings between French explorers and Indigenous Australian­s through her paintings; Linde Ivimey’s playful sculptures pay homage to Australian scientists in the Antarctic; and Fiona McMonagle’s large-scale canvases depict children representi­ng the Child Migration Scheme.

‘So Fine’ is an ambitious exhibition, drawing on a range of mediums and interpreta­tions of portraitur­e, to bring attention to the multiplici­ty of narratives that make up Australian history. Whilst the range of mediums can make the exhibition feel disjointed when seen as a whole, individual­ly each artist’s work creates an entry point to a tapestry of stories.

Zoya Patel is a writer and editor based in Canberra

National Portrait Gallery Australian Capital Territory Until 1 October, 2018

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